Celebrating fifty years of the final frontier

It's half a century since mankind first journeyed into space. A special mission launches today to mark the occasion. These days getting to orbit is easy – but where can astronauts go next?

Deep in Russia, a new space mission is launching today in honour of the world's first astronaut, Yuri Gagarin. Two Russians and one American will travel into orbit where, on the 12th April, they will celebrate fifty years since the first dangerous journey into outer space.

When Gagarin set off on his pioneering voyage, he was crossing a frontier into the unknown. Born in the small Russian village of Klushino, not far from Moscow, he was selected at the age of 27 to be the first man ever to travel into space.

Only animals had been sent before. The US had launched monkeys into orbit – none survived. And in 1957, a Russian dog completed a full circuit of the earth, although she died a few hours after take-off.

Although some animals had later made the trip safely, there was great uncertainty about the possible dangers. Gagarin's niece, Tamara Filatova, remembers that space was seen as 'something very scary… a black abyss that could easily swallow someone.'

Scientists were unsure what effect space travel might have on a human astronaut. Gagarin's rocket was designed to be controlled from the ground, in case the journey into the void should drive the young Russian mad.

But at 9:07am, on the morning of the 12th April, 1961, the Vostok 1 spacecraft was launched.

Strapped into a small round capsule, perched on the front of its huge booster rockets, Gagarin disappeared into the upper atmosphere.

At 9:13, Gagarin radioed back to mission control. 'Everything is good… I can see the Earth.' For just over an hour, one man, alone in his fragile craft, floated at the dark fringes of space.

At 10:25, he re-entered Earth's atmosphere. Buffeting winds heated his capsule to red-hot temperatures. An equipment failure sent it into a violent spin.

But, at an altitude of 7km above the ground, Gagarin was successfully ejected, landing by parachute ten minutes later. A farmer and his daughter saw a strangely dressed man falling from the sky, and leapt back in fear. 'Don't be afraid,' he said. 'I am a Soviet like you, who has descended from outer space.'

The next generation
Gagarin was hailed as a hero, in Russia and beyond. But today, excitement over space travel has faded as the limits of our reach have become apparent. Astronauts celebrating today can travel hardly any further than Gagarin did, fifty years ago.

The struggle to escape Earth's atmosphere inspired a generation. The next great challenge is to send humans beyond our solar system, to explore the unknown wonders of the universe beyond.

You Decide

  1. Space tourists pay to travel to space. Would you? If so, how much?
  2. Manned space exploration costs billions of pounds. Worth the money?

Activities

  1. Imagine setting off in a giant 'world-ship' on a fifty-year mission to another star. Write an imagined diary of key moments.
  2. Research the scientific challenges to space exploration. Create a chart showing what they are and how they might be overcome.

Some People Say...

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.' (Oscar Wilde, 1854-1900)”

What do you think?

Q & A

What happened to space travel? Are we stuck?
Pretty much. It's still very expensive to put people in space. And humans can't stay there for long because of radiation. And our spacecraft don't go very far or very fast.
How far can we go?
The next realistic destination is Mars – in galactic terms, that's practically next-door.
And where do we want to go?
To other star systems, with unknown and unexplored planets. But that's quite a journey. If Mars was next door, our nearest star would be 4000 miles away.
So how do we get there?
The next wave of space pioneers may have to make journeys that take decades, or even centuries. That means huge self-sufficient starships, that can carry hundreds of people across interstellar space. Whoever set off on such a journey would never return – but it would be the ultimate human adventure.